Suffolk County Council believes that there is no one right way to undertake good consultation. The approach needs to be influenced by the circumstances surrounding the specific decision being made, including (most importantly) the people who are likely to be affected.
Nevertheless, the Council follows best practice and continually learns how to improve when it comes to consultation.
Basic principles essentially remain the same as established in a landmark case (R v London Borough of Brent ex parte Gunning (1985)). The “Gunning (also known as Sedley) Principles” were confirmed as applicable to all public consultations by the Court of Appeal in 2001 and can be seen carried through into current legislation and guidance such as the Planning Act 2008 and the Localism Act 2011.
The Gunning principles are:
- Consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage
- Sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response
- Adequate time must be given for consideration and response
- The product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account
Suffolk County Council undertakes a diverse range of consultations each year. To ensure consistency, the following guiding principles, taken from Government advice published in March 2018, will be followed (in addition to the Gunning Principles) each time we undertake a formal consultation exercise.
A. Consultations should be clear and concise
Use plain English and avoid acronyms. Be clear on which questions you are asking and limit the number of questions to those that are necessary. Make them easy to understand and easy to answer. Avoid lengthy documents where possible and consider merging those on related topics.
B. Consultations should have a purpose
Do not consult for the sake of it. Consider whether you have a legal duty to consult. Take consultation responses into account when taking policy forward. Consult about policies or implementation plans when the development of the policies or plans is at a formative stage. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.
C. Consultations should be informative
Give enough information to ensure that those consulted understand the issues and can give informed responses. Include validated impact assessments of the costs and benefits of the options being considered where possible; this might be required where proposals have an impact on business or the voluntary sector.
D. Consultations are only part of a process of engagement
Consider whether informal iterative consultation is appropriate, using new digital tools and open, collaborative approaches. Consultation is not just about formal documents and responses. It is an on-going process.
E. Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time
Judge the length of the consultation based on professional advice and consideration of the nature and impact of the proposal. Consulting for too long will unnecessarily delay policy development. Consulting too quickly will not give enough time for consideration and will reduce the quality of responses.
F. Consultations should be targeted
Consider the full range of people, business and voluntary bodies affected by the policy and whether representative groups exist. Consider targeting specific groups if appropriate. Ensure they are aware of the consultation and can access it. Consider how to tailor consultation to the needs and preferences of particular groups, such as older people, younger people or people with disabilities that may not respond to traditional consultation methods.
G. Consultations should take account of the groups being consulted
Consult stakeholders in a way that suits them. Charities may need more time to respond than businesses, for example. When the consultation spans all or part of a holiday period, consider how this may affect consultation and take appropriate mitigating action, such as prior discussion with key interested parties or extension of the consultation deadline beyond the holiday period.
H. Consultations should be agreed before publication
Seek collective agreement before publishing a written consultation, particularly when consulting on new policy proposals. Consultations should be published on the Suffolk County Council website.
I. Consultation should facilitate scrutiny
Publish any response on the same page on gov.uk as the original consultation, and ensure it is clear when the government has responded to the consultation. Explain the responses that have been received from consultees and how these have informed the policy. State how many responses have been received.
J. Suffolk County Council responses to consultations should be published in a timely fashion
Publish responses within 12 weeks of the consultation or provide an explanation why this is not possible. Allow appropriate time between closing the consultation and implementing policy.
K. Consultation exercises should not generally be launched during local, national or European election periods
If exceptional circumstances make a consultation essential (for example, for safeguarding public health), advice should be sought.
L. People should be able to see clearly the impact of their contribution
Decision making should be transparent, so people should be able to see clearly how their response to a consultation is used in any final decision making.
M. Consultation Exercises should be rigorously evaluated
Both during the design process and subsequently consultations should be evaluated against the charter to ensure they are aligned to it.
N. Adoption of the Charter’s best practice for broader engagement
Where appropriate when we engage in other ways other than a formal consultation exercise, we will adopt the Charter’s principles.